The image you see above is part of a sequence we did for John Wick 3. The scope of work for the sequence included, blood spatter, muzzle flashes, light smoke and lens effects. All our shots looked real, but were mostly done using 2d solutions in Nuke. Aside from art direction, these shots were pretty easy to get done in a timely manner.
I've been teaching at the college for many years now and I see a common pattern emerge out of the creative minds of students. At this point, I actually haven't figured out where all the influence comes from and my closest guess is probably Starwars. Hundreds of sci-fi films emerged from concepts that seem to be rooted from the Starwars franchise. Maybe students try to stand out by creating massive, full screen CGI? Or maybe they are over compensating for skills they feel are lacking.
With every batch of graduates from various film and vfx schools, students tend to gravitate towards making....
full screen VFX
While I have nothing against any of the topics above, I do want to make it clear that these are the most common CG elements that show up in student reels. By now, a lot of low quality student work circulating on the internet has given the aforementioned topics a bad reputation. Whenever these show up on a reel, the viewer might already be pre disposed to disliking the shot. Lastly, your work should stand out above the rest; And one of the best ways to stand out is to against the grain.
What should you do instead? As a general rule of thumb, keep your personal projects simple. Focus on quality over quantity. I know it's not as exciting as creating gigantic transformer robots body checking sky scrapers, but the simple stuff is what will land you a job at the end of the day.
Here's a few more tips to get positive attention on your work and or demo reel
Keep your shot(s) short, no longer than 3 seconds each. Spend your time wisely. Do you really want to roto, track, animate, simulate, render and comp a couple hundred frames? What if you have to re-shoot or make any adjustments?
Create CGI that already exists in this world. It's easier to convince the viewer that the object is real when they have already seen it with their own 2 eyes. If you're feeling extra creative, then at least base your CGI on something that already exists in our world.
Avoid making CGI the center of attention. Put you CGI in the background, corner of the screen, behind an object. Don't take up any more than 50% screen space. Use the shot's lighting, focus, motion and composition as cues for integration.
Get constant feedback. Have an instructor critique your work a few times a week. Share your proposed schedule and solutions. Many times students and novice artists will under estimate and over complicate the work that needs to be done.
Reference is key to good VFX. Never fabricate an effect out of thin air. Always use real life references. Create a folder with a collection of photos & videos of the effect you are trying to match to. Avoid using CGI as reference, those are already fake and it will lead you to make something even more fake.
Keep your shot simple. By simple I don't mean use a polygon primitive and integrate it into a shot, that will not land you a job either. Do you remember the last big budget VFX film you saw in the theatres? Did you see all the credited names and companies under VFX? That's how many people it took to create all those shots (that has robots, space ships, aliens, explosions). You are one person or a small group and you cannot compete with mult-million dollar VFX studios. Focus on having one relatively simple object that will showcase the appropriate skills you need for the position you are applying for.
Do not put tutorials in your reel. Chances are, you are not the only one proud to learn that fancy new trick. Many students beat you to the punch and already put that exact same recipe on their reel. This creates a problem because the exact same project / work shows up in many reels applying for the same job. Furthermore, it does not prove that you actually understand the fundamentals of the tutorial. Prove that you are good problem solver and able to think for yourself by re-purposing the tutorial for a completely different shot.
Easy on the wipes. Yes, wiping on some WIP elements, and comp are good. Try to remember that whoever is watching your reel already knows what is involved in creating the effect. 3 or 4 wipes to final is good enough. There's no need to drag the length of your reel with an obscene amount of wipes and breakdowns.
Social media is your friend. Facebook, Instagram, Linked In, Youtube and Vimeo are all common platforms people use to share their art work with the rest of the world. It's ok to share the cool new thing you learned in these platforms. I suggest just picking one and sticking to it. Placing some WIPs on line even just a few times a year will get your name out there and attract potential employers. In fact, some of our most talented artists were found on social media.